I should like to add to all this that the church has the prior right to question us….
The church is our pastor.
~ Helmut Thielicke
I should like to add to all this that the church has the prior right to question us….
The church is our pastor.
~ Helmut Thielicke
Posted by Rick Becker on February 17, 2017
The strangest whim
has seized me. . . . After all
I think I will not hang myself today.
~ G.K. Chesterton
Posted by Rick Becker on August 17, 2014
“You start reading C.S. Lewis, then you’re reading
G.K. Chesterton, then you’re a Catholic.”
~ Ross Douthat
Posted by Rick Becker on July 13, 2014
“The very word Birth-Prevention would strike a chill into the public, the instant it was blazoned on headlines…. They dare not call it by its name, because its name is very bad advertising.”
~ G.K. Chesterton
Posted by Rick Becker on July 7, 2014
Life is serious all the time,
but living cannot be serious all the time.
~ G.K. Chesterton
Posted by Rick Becker on June 20, 2014
“Only, when he has entered the Church, he finds that the Church is much larger inside than it is outside.”
~ G.K. Chesterton
Posted by Rick Becker on April 27, 2014
God bless you, Mr. Gates. You made a pile of dough, and now you’re trying to spread the love — like your foundation’s efforts to fight disease and poverty throughout the developing world. You’re making possible tremendous change for the good — keep it up! The world admires and applauds you.
Here’s the problem, though: In addition to underwriting tons of initiatives that directly and indirectly address disease and poverty, the Gates Foundation seems inordinately interested in “family planning” — a euphemism, as I’m sure your know, for birth control.
That’s a problem because people might get the idea that the two things are connected — the fighting disease and poverty thing on the one hand, and the family planning agenda thing on the other.
Take your recent WSJ article about polio eradication in India. What you and your foundation have done and are doing there is magnificent, and your commitment to underwriting such important work is truly edifying. But you let the cat out of the bag with this opening statement:
Our foundation began working in India a decade ago, at a time when many feared that the country would become a flashpoint for HIV/AIDS. Since then, we have expanded into other areas, including vaccines, family planning and agricultural development (emphasis added).
Agricultural development? Excellent. And vaccines? Again, excellent, especially with reference to the successes you’ve seen in India.
But why family planning? What does that have to do with combating disease? Family planning only helps with that when you’re talking about condoms, and we both know your organization is into lots more birth control methods than that. The Gates Foundation advocates the use of contraceptives akin to Depo-Provera shots and Norplant implants. These are abortifacient drugs that are known to be dangerous to women. In fact, Norplant was taken off the U.S. market in 2002. Distributing a Norplant equivalent overseas sends a distressing message at best.
That’s bad enough, but there’s more. By linking development with family planning, you leave yourself open to the accusation that you’re going to battle sickness by shrinking the number of the sick — or that you want to reduce destitution by reducing the destitute population. Less people? Less poverty and disease — problems solved!
Perhaps such censure wouldn’t be relevant if the family planning services you underwrite were truly voluntary, no strings attached — you know, like if it were really clear that you just wanted to offer impoverished parents the help they need to avoid more mouths to feed.
But your foundation’s ulterior motives are hard to camouflage. The Family Planning Strategy Overview on the Gates Foundation website pays lip service to “voluntary family planning” as “one of the great public health advances of the past century.” However, there’s also disturbing language that hints at a vision for something a bit more compulsory:
In selected countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, our strategy aims to:
- Increase the use of modern contraceptives.…
- Introduce innovative, low-cost solutions that can expand the supply of and demand for family planning products and services
Disturbing aims like these correspond with some disturbing associations your foundation maintains. For example, the Gates Foundation partners with the U.N. in working toward that body’s Millennium Development Goals — like this one, which includes a benchmark that shows there’s still plenty of “work” to be done:
Achieve universal access to reproductive health….
- The large increase in contraceptive use in the 1990s was not matched in the 2000s.
One more concern along these lines: Abortion. Your foundation’s Family Planning Strategy mentions “fewer” abortions as something laudable and achievable. Yet, at the same time, the Foundation seems to be involved in promoting more abortion, not less — like at that conference in Ethiopia earlier this month, where there was a workshop entitled “Efforts to Implement Policies that Expand Access to Safe Abortion.” You can’t have it both ways.
The real threat here was identified by Pope Paul VI way back in 1968:
Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this [contraceptive] power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law…. Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.
At the time, I imagine many wrote off the Pope as a crank, but his warning isn’t so far-fetched these days — case in point: the Chinese experience of enforced one-child policies, with associated skewed demographics, forced abortions, and suppression of reproductive dissent. You don’t want to be party to creating that kind of repressive situation in India, do you? Especially when even China is backing off totalitarian family planning these days.
Anyway, I’ve made my point, but I want to leave you with an image to ponder. G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay about social reform and contraception in which he drew an absurd comparison between birth control and decapitation. Chesterton then made this assertion:
But anybody ought to be able to see that if we once simplify things by head cutting we can do without hair-cutting; that it will be needless to practise dentistry on the dead or philanthropy on the unborn — or the unbegotten. So it is not a provision for our descendants to say that the destruction of our descendants will render it unnecessary to provide them with anything.
What we need is not fewer people, but fewer selfish people — not smaller populations, but bigger hearts. And bigger hearts are cultivated primarily by exhortation and example — by reminding folks of goodness and generosity and sacrifice through persuasive discourse and lived witness. Your own example is a fabulous model for these things. Please don’t tarnish it with outdated notions connecting social progress with family planning. They didn’t work in the 1960s. Or the 1970s. They won’t work now either.
Instead, take heed your own words in that WSJ article you wrote: “What some call a weakness can be a source of great strength.” Babies are not the enemy. Indeed, contrary to neo-Malthusian naysayers everywhere, the next generation is this generation’s hope — far from being a burden to avoid, kids carry the future before them. You touched on this idea when describing India’s vaccination initiative, and your words would make a great motto for your foundation: “The heart of the plan was a simple and inspiring mission: to find the children.” To find the children, not to get rid of them. Craft a strategy for your foundation around that idea, and you’ll accomplish even more remarkable things.
Again, thanks for all the real good you’re making possible in the world, and for your example of selfless giving. I hope many imitate your abundant generosity.
A version of this story appeared on Crisis.
Posted by Rick Becker on November 24, 2013
We started Pride and Prejudice. Again.
Priorities for our recently acquired “big screen” have been zombie-slaying and romantic comedies, but my wife and I pulled rank to start watching the six-hour BBC epic for the umpteenth time. We had plenty of other options to choose from—piles of VHS tapes from the Goodwill (30 for $1 these days), and readily available blockbusters at Redbox. Still, we opted for P&P, and we even had a couple of kids join us (voluntarily!) as we got out our well-worn boxed set.
Well-worn indeed, after who knows how many viewings, yet still fresh somehow. The music and characters and dialogue are all so familiar, but with each screening you catch something you hadn’t before—a hitherto unnoticed face in the background framed by other faces in the foreground; an arched eyebrow on Lady Catherine de Bourgh that had escaped your prior attention; an obscure nod, smile, or shrug—minute details already frozen on film, but only detected (and appreciated) this go around.
Just as importantly, though, is the fact that it’s a shared encounter. Sure, Simon Langton’s brilliant re-telling of Jane Austen’s story is magic, but what’s even more magical is to come back to it time and again as a family, experiencing and exploring over the years the multilayered nuances—of both the story and the production—in each other’s company.
Among other things, it has definitely contributed to shaping our family culture, at least insofar as lines are routinely quoted (and expected to be understood) at opportune moments. For example, it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without somebody plopping into a chair after dinner, and then declaring to all assembled Lydia’s memorable line, “Lord, I’m so fat!”
All this is possible because we have sat through it over and over and over, and we’ll keep doing so. It’s pleasurable, it reveals something new each time, and it binds us together—like the liturgy.
Yikes! That’s a jump, but hear me out—and think especially of monastic liturgical prayer. In addition to daily Mass, the monks gather together seven times a day to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office, and what St. Benedict called the “work of God” (opus Dei). There’s routine and the rhythm, the recurring cycle of readings and Psalms, the sameness of the Hours, day in, day out, year in, year out—the usual. Doesn’t it get boring? Doesn’t rote recitation (and “recitation” is a legitimate term here according to the Catechism) lead to cynicism and spiritual torpor? Doesn’t familiarity, in other words, lead to contempt?
Far from it. The Liturgy of the Hours is largely a structured way of praying through the Scriptures, and so it is an encounter with the Word Himself. That being the case, can it be reasonable to talk of too many repetitions of such encounters? The problem isn’t the repetition—the problem isn’t with God in other words. Rather, the problem is our limited capacity to benefit from the repetition. Chesterton puts it this way in Orthodoxy:
For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.
Monastic life, among other things, is oriented to cultivating that divine delight in reiteration through a life given over to prayer “without ceasing.”
So, the Divine Office (and the liturgy in general) is itself a recurrent encounter with the Word Himself, but it’s also a preparation—a conditioning that makes even deeper forms of prayer possible. Specifically referencing the Divine Office, the Catechism notes that the cycles and routine of liturgy can “reveal more deeply the meaning of the mystery being celebrated and prepare for silent prayer.” St. Benedict also hinted at this in his Rule when he urged his monks to be diligent when praying the psalter so that “our mind may be in harmony with our voice.”
While the foregoing comparison of P&P with the liturgy is admittedly oblique and strained at best, at this juncture there is no comparison at all. For liturgical prayer always has value for those partaking, even when they don’t feel prayerful or spiritual. Contrarily, we can only delve into the BBC mini-series (and enjoy it) when we’re in the right frame of mind—no such requirement attends the Divine Office, or any part of the Church’s liturgy. In fact, many saints and sages tell us the exact opposite—that we actually accrue more value from our prayer when we are not feeling especially pious or prayerful. St. John of the Cross, for instance, wrote:
Never give up prayer, and should you find dryness and difficulty, persevere in it for this very reason. God often desires to see what love your soul has, and love is not tried by ease and satisfaction.
The Carmelite mystic went on to write that “Love consists not in feeling great things”—an idea that can’t be emphasized enough these days, especially in reference to God.
And here, the P&P connection can be revisited. The wedding scene at the close of the series includes a rehearsal of some very traditional language regarding Christian marriage—that it is, for example, an institution “signifying unto us the mystical union that is between Christ and His church.” The priest goes on to list the three ends of marriage: First, fertility; then, fidelity; and finally, “mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.”
Prosperity and adversity; richer and poorer; sickness and health; even what may seem like tedium interspersed with highs and lows of comedy and tragedy. Day in, day out, year in, year out, no matter what—the vow and the relationship holds. Feelings, in other words, have very little to do with it. The object of marriage is not happiness (a fleeting feeling), but rather holiness, wholeness, and joy, and those are only realized within the context of a promise kept through time. It is not an emotion, but an action.
As with prayer. The Church gives us the liturgy as a ready-made shell for actualizing our meager inclinations to prayer. It’s an astounding fact that our paltry attempts to seek Him out are met with His extravagant self-giving—like the father who “ran and embraced and kissed” the Prodigal Son “while he was yet at a distance.” All He requires is our tentative, even rote, step toward Him; He will do the rest.
Posted by Rick Becker on August 11, 2013
Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
~ Hilaire Belloc (1870 – 1953)
The television was on in the service center waiting area—Katie Couric was introducing her next guest. I was the only one there, and normally I’d just turn off the set rather than endure daytime programming. But I wasn’t going to be long—just waiting for a key to be copied—so I left it on. Besides, the show’s topic caught my eye: Why Women Drink.
Author Gabrielle Glaser was the guest, and as soon as she started talking, I remembered reading an excerpt from her new book, Her Best-Kept Secret, in the newspaper. Fascinating stuff—all about the differences in drinking patterns between men and women, the intentional marketing of wine to women after World War II, and how women are coping with rising levels of alcohol abuse.
According to Glaser, the solution for most women isn’t necessarily complete abstinence—that sobriety can be achieved by restoring appropriate levels of alcohol intake. This isn’t the case for the vast majority of men, for whom an all or nothing approach is often required. In any case, regardless of which strategy is most appropriate and when, this gender difference is revealing of something essential to alcohol consumption.
It’s this: You can drink without getting drunk. Really. Chesterton implied as much when he wrote, “We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them.” St. Paul condemned full-blown drunkenness in the strongest terms, lumping it in with fornication and idolatry. Yet, he also wrote to Timothy, “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.”
The fact that you can have a beer or glass of wine without becoming inebriated does indeed set alcohol apart from dope and weed. Sure, booze can make us boozy, but recreational drugs are classified as “mood-altering substances” for a reason. Responding to an article in the WSJ about marijuana, Greg Pilcher of Oregon put it this way:
What seems to be continually confused and misconstrued in the marijuana debate is pot’s parallel to alcohol. Alcohol is like marijuana only if the objective of the drinker is to detach oneself from reality by overindulging. One does not have to have that objective if one imbibes a moderate amount of alcohol.
This is good because, among other things, we use alcohol as a Sacrament—at the Savior’s command—so it’s no small irony that drunkenness has been a stubborn problem in the church from the get-go. Apparently it even plagued the early church at worship, for Paul had to admonish the Corinthians to keep a lid on their Agape feasts:
When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal, and one is hungry and another is drunk (I Cor. 11:20-21).
Liquor confounds us as both Sacrament and sin—or at least a major temptation to sin. Intemperance is what we call it. Lack of sobriety. What’s more, it’s a vice that’s both complex and heartbreaking, an addiction that has moral dimensions tangled up with mental illness. Devastating.
All the more intriguing, then, is the popular fourteenth-century Latin prayer that refers to inebriation as a divine gift: The Anima Christi. Here’s one translation:
Soul of Christ, sanctify me
Body of Christ, save me
Blood of Christ, inebriate me
Water from the side of Christ, wash me
Passion of Christ, strengthen me
O good Jesus, hear me
Within Your wounds hide me
Separated from You let me never be
From the evil one protect me
At the hour of my death call me
And close to You bid me
That with Your saints I may be
Praising You forever and ever
I memorized this prayer decades ago, and I recite it every day as I prepare for Holy Communion. And, every day, I slow down when I get to that line about inebriation and linger over its meaning. Simply put, we’re to get drunk on Jesus—in fact, it’s a plea that He Himself would do the intoxicating.
But inebriation was something I grew up fearing—and not just because it was a sin. My father was an alcoholic, and he struggled with the bottle off and on until the day he died. As a result, my childhood was framed by chaos and uncertainty, and even though Dad wasn’t a violent drunk, his erratic behavior made for a bumpy upbringing. Overindulgence, especially around holidays, caused great pain for my mom and my family, and the idea that inebriation could be integrated into a prayer of devotion was disorienting at first.
Presumably the anonymous medieval author of the Anima Christi was well aware of the Bible’s condemnations of drunkenness, as well as the constant battles against it fought by laity and clergy alike. So what did he intend by including that line?
I think Jean-Pierre de Caussade offers a parallel insight here. The 18th-century Jesuit wrote a book of spiritual counsel, entitling it Abandonment to Divine Providence—itself a metaphor for what the Anima Christi implies. No holding back, in other words. A complete surrender. As if to underscore this connection and interpretation, de Caussade himself incorporates an image of imbibing with liberality:
As you know nothing pleases God more than a complete contempt of self, accompanied by an absolute confidence in Him alone. This God of all goodness, therefore, does you a great favour in compelling you, often against your will, to drink from this chalice so much dreaded by your self-love and corrupt nature.
De Caussade’s chalice is of a bitter vintage—filled with troubles and temptations—for it’s the one we share with Christ Himself.
Now six stone jars were standing there, for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the steward of the feast.’ So they took it. When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, [he] did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew).
That’s a lot of wine, and it’s on top of the jars the revelers had drained already. It’s almost as if Jesus was saying, “Party on!” Just so, for the wine here of course represents Jesus and the New Covenant. No need for a designated driver when our beverage of choice is God Himself. Cut loose and drink deep!
So, we’re called to get tipsy on Jesus, even blasted. To what end? In vino veritas, “in wine there is truth”goes the old Roman saying, and that applies here I suspect. Our guard is dropped, our masks are removed, and we come before Him completely uninhibited. Perhaps, then, He can do something with us. Maybe even turn us into saints.
Saints? Us? Me? Yes, even me. And surely my dad as well. As I ponder the Anima Christi every day, I also think of my father and pray for him. When it came to drink, he made some bad choices, but I don’t blame him. Dad’s generation knew nothing of depression and bipolar illness and self-medication. He drank beer because it made him feel a little better. It’s no wonder that he thought even more beer would actually make him feel…normal.
Matt Talbot, too, was a drunk, but he took the pledge and really turned his life around. In fact, he’s on the path to being declared a saint, and he is already invoked around the world as a patron of alcoholics. So it is that I take heed his words of sympathy for folks like my dad: “Never look down on a man who cannot give up the drink,” Talbot said. “It is easier to get out of hell.”
Recovering alcoholic Heather King made a similar point at the end of her memoir, Parched:
I still don’t know why God allows obsessions, cravings, disease: I just know I’m really glad that when Christ stood among the Pharisees he said, ‘Healthy people don’t need a doctor; sick people do.’ Only a God of inexhaustible love, infinite creativity, and a burning desire to count every last one of us in could have taken a broken-down wreck like me and made something useful out of her.
Those are hopeful words—aren’t we all broken-down wrecks?
So, yes, Lord. We’re sick and sober. Heal us. Save us. Inebriate us.
Posted by Rick Becker on July 21, 2013
My vote for understatement of the year goes to Lisa McGiffert, director of something called the Consumers Union Safe Patient Project.
It appeared in a story about Colleen Burns, a 41-year-old “brain dead” woman in Syracuse, who woke up in the O.R. right before they started yanking out her organs. Here’s McGiffert’s memorable line:
These sorts of things do happen. It’s pretty disturbing.
Pretty disturbing? Yah, I’d say so.
It reminds me of a similar scenario from several years ago—Zach Dunlap also woke up shortly before the docs initiated organ “harvesting.” In fact, Zach even remembers hearing himself described as “brain dead,” and it’s a good thing he was in no condition to respond. “I’m glad I couldn’t get up and do what I wanted to do,” he said on the Today show, 4 months after making his remarkable recovery.
Burns in Syracuse apparently woke up on her own. Zach? He was out cold—well, “dead,” actually, according to the medical team—but he had a couple cousins who were nurses, and they weren’t so sure. One cousin, Dan, dragged a pocketknife blade up the sole of Zach’s foot, and the foot pulled away. The attending nurse dismissed it as a reflex action, but the cousins didn’t give up.
Dan then dug a fingernail under one of Zach’s nails. Zach yanked his arm away and across his body, and that, the other nurse agreed, wasn’t a reflex action. It was a sign of life.
Those who think brain death is legit chalk this one up to sloppy diagnosis—either that, or else it’s an honest to goodness miracle! Those of us who who retain deep misgivings about brain death and all its attendant implications see Zach’s story (and Colleen‘s, and many others) as justification for our skepticism at the very least.
Yet there’s another story here: Those cousins. They refused to give up on Zach, and he’s alive today as a result. They rejected the diagnosis, spotted subtle signs of life, and persisted in rousing their kin.
We may not be physically “brain dead” ourselves (I’m writing these words and you’re reading them, after all), but there’s another kind of brain death—a moral malaise, an intellectual and volitional doldrums, in which we lose touch with the needs and aspirations of those beyond our immediate circle, and find contentment in the status quo.
This other kind of brain death was referenced by rapper and entrepreneur Ice-T in a recent, colorful WSJ interview:
When I was rapping out of L.A., the s— I said had to be the truth. People were very serious about not lying. We live in a different world now. The kids [today], they ain’t been through s—. My son got picked up in a Rolls-Royce from the hospital, wearing $250 sneakers. So what the f— can he rap about?
Ice-T’s surely onto something here, but he doesn’t prescribe impoverishment as a remedy for his son. Instead, he recommends that the next generation of rappers simply start paying attention—to wake up in other words. Ice-T goes on:
Come on, there’s a f—ing war going on! The world is in a housing crisis, an unemployment situation. The thing is, I’m in my 50s. It has to come from someone 19 or 20. The youth, they’re comfortably numb, like Pink Floyd said.
St. Peter, I’m convinced, was addressing this very phenomenon in his first epistle. “Be sober, be watchful,” Peter wrote. “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour.” That’s the Revised Standard Version; other translations have that first line as “Stay awake!”
Don’t fall asleep, you could say. Keep talking, or move your arms around, or pinch yourself—like you do when you’re driving across Kansas to keep from nodding off. Similarly, we avoid nodding off morally by staying informed, being bothered by things, protesting, carrying signs, arguing, discussing, deliberating, listening. And if we stop doing those things? Peter was warning about temptations to sin and apostasy, but garden-variety ennui can be just as deadly.
Jesus, too, spoke often of sleeping and staying awake—like the ten bridesmaids in the parable. “For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept.” When awoken, the foolish were unprepared for the festivities and the others got to party. They were all caught sleeping, but at least the wise bridesmaids were in readiness and could recover quickly.
Not so the sleepers mentioned by the Lord in the Book of Revelation: “Lo, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is he who is awake, keeping his garments that he may not go naked and be seen exposed!” Ouch.
Then, there are the Apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane: :
And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, ‘Why do you sleep?’
It’s notable that all these biblical exhortations to stay awake chiefly benefit the recipients. Peter demanded that his associates fend off listlessness for their own sake, not his. The same with Jesus—He didn’t implore the Apostles to stay awake and pray because He was counting on their support. Instead, it was a warning meant for their own good: “Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
But there’s a charitable dimension in vigilance as well. G.K. Chesterton wrote about this:
The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world. In this long vigil he often has to vary his methods of stimulation; but in this long vigil he is also himself striving against a continual tendency to sleep.
“People never notice anything,” observed Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and the rest of the book is about Holden desperately scrambling to notice something, anything. Like Holden, we too have to fight to notice things and stay awake in a world of distraction and dullness. It’s work. It’s not always pleasant. We often need help.
Zach Dunlap, too, had to work hard. Speaking of his frustration during the months of rehab after his brush with death, Zach confessed, “I just ain’t got the patience.” Even so, his ability to experience impatience at all was itself a gift—a gift of new life. Dead people, really dead people, can’t be impatient. Ever.
To remind himself of the gift, Zach holds onto that pocketknife his cousin used to scrape his foot so long ago. Says Zach, “It makes me thankful that they didn’t give up.” Amen. Thank God for those cousins. Thank God they were present and alert and engaged. Thank God they acted on Zach’s behalf. And thank God they persevered in trying to wake him.
We could all use cousins like that, regardless of the kind of brain death we face.
Posted by Rick Becker on July 14, 2013